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The Ward (2010)
Director: John Carpenter

review by Ian Sales

The Ward, as its title suggests, is set in an insane asylum. There seems to be a specific cinematic language associated with such films. For a start, they always seem to be based around the abuse of patients - such as when, for example, a person has been misdiagnosed and is actually quite sane. Indeed, the patients of The Ward are suspiciously normal in their behaviour and reactions...

Kristen (Amber Heard) is arrested after setting fire to a farmhouse, and promptly institutionalised in the titular ward, the secure psychiatric wing of a hospital. Inside, she meets fellow inmates Emily (Mamie Gummer), Sarah (Danielle Panabaker), Zoey (Laura-Leigh) and Iris (Lyndsy Fonseca). Kristen does not understand why she has been put in the ward, but neither can she remember her past before the farmhouse fire. She tries repeatedly to escape - in fact, the plot of the film comprises one escape attempt after another.

The film is set in 1966 - as all such films need to be. Some of the drama comes from the abuse perpetrated on the patients, and some of it from the barbaric treatment regimes. Neither would be plausible in the US of the 21st century. Unfortunately, setting such films in the past has become a cliché. This is further strengthened by the cinematic trope - I suspect it happened in real life, but I've no idea to what extent - in which women are blithely sectioned as 'hysterics', i.e. for no good medical or psychiatric reason.

Films such as The Ward often use experimental treatments to drive the story - in this case it is electro-convulsive therapy. Films such as The Ward also never seem to be especially informed by real medicine. For example, Kristen demands 'night privileges', which appears to be the right to wander about the corridors after lights out. This makes no sense, either as a permissible practice in a secure psychiatric ward or as a privilege which might be offered to well-behaving patients. It goes without saying that the line "I'm not crazy" is used in the film; as is the rejoinder, "We don't like to use that word here." This is psychiatry as cliché.

But The Ward is chiefly a horror film, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the ward is also haunted. Kristen has seen a ghostly figure flitting about the corridors at night. Later, it attacks her in the showers. Then it begins one by one to kill the other inmates. This ghost is Alice, an ex-inmate who died during a session of ECT performed by Dr Stringer (Jared Harris).

Unsurprisingly, all is not as it seems. Kristen has not been misdiagnosed. After some running around and a couple of gruesome murders, Dr Stringer reluctantly reveals the truth. Sadly, the identity of the ghost - of all five young women, in fact - comes as little surprise. The twist in The Ward has been used before by other films; and the nature of the story and its setting only signposts far too obviously the dénouement.

The Ward and its environs are suitably menacing, with good use made of Dutch angles, dissolves, an unsettling musical score and atmospheric lighting. This turns the hospital into a haunted house, which is appropriate to the story if not especially plausible. But then the bright, shiny, sterile hospitals of the real world make poor playgrounds for horror films. The Ward may be a film made by a filmmaker at the top of his game, one more than willing to use every trick in the book to manage the viewer's response, but it's a shame the story is wholly unoriginal.

The Ward

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